Finding facilities

With a charter comes the search for school space. Here’s how one Memphis operator is doing it.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Freedom Preparatory Academy's high school is housed in the former Lakeview Elementary School owned by Shelby County Schools.

When Roblin Boxill made the career jump from lawyer to charter school founder seven years ago, she had little knowledge of buildings and maintenance.

Now she can look at ceiling tile and detect asbestos. She can accurately estimate square footage in a potential classroom. And she knows that if a building doesn’t have a fire sprinkler system, it’s not worth her time.

As CEO of Freedom Preparatory Academy, Boxill is like many Memphis charter leaders who deal with the daily challenges of finding facilities and operating new schools in typically aging buildings.

Of the 45 charters authorized by Shelby County Schools, eight are housed in school buildings that have been closed by the district; six lease space and two bought the buildings. The remaining charter schools are housed in commercial buildings.

Next year, thanks to last week’s school board vote, the local district’s charter sector will grow by seven more schools, whose operators must secure their own facilities.

Freedom Prep operates one Memphis charter under the state-run Achievement School District and three under Shelby County Schools, including an elementary school that opened this month in South Memphis.

Finding potential school buildings that are also affordable has been one of Freedom Prep’s biggest challenges as an operator.

When a charter opens in a building owned by Shelby County Schools, the charter pays for rent and regular maintenance. If authorized by the state-run Achievement School District, the charter operator is responsible for utilities and repair, but not rent.

Freedom Prep has been paying $178,060 annually to Shelby County Schools, plus utilities and maintenance, to house its high school at the former Lakeview Elementary School. But it’s now seeking to buy the building and its 15 acres outright for $735,000. The proposed purchase is to be considered Tuesday night by Shelby County’s school board.

The operator’s new elementary school launched inside of the Mt. Pisgah Family Ministry Complex in South Memphis, which also houses Freedom Prep’s offices. For that space, Freedom Prep pays $81,000 per year, plus utilities.

Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.
PHOTO: Freedom Preparatory Academy
Roblin Boxill, CEO and founder of Freedom Preparatory.

The school now has about 120 kindergarteners and first-graders, and Boxill expects the budding elementary school to run out of room by next school year, necessitating a move. But she’s not sure where. Buildings that are well suited for a school often come at a high rental price that “basically takes it out of the classroom,” she said.

“(Real estate) is not the business that we’re in,” she said. “Starting a charter school is like starting a startup business, and always from scratch.”

Since charters in commercial spaces are not eligible for money from bonds, other funding for facility improvement comes from conventional loans, investment funds and charter support organizations.

Facilities are just one of the challenges being examined by Shelby County Schools’ new 27-member charter compact committee, of which Boxill is a member. The panel was created earlier this year to look at issues that come up between the district and its growing charter sector. But Boxill said the higher priority for the committee at this point is clarifying academic performance standards following the school board’s decision last spring to revoke four charters over performance issues.

School Finance

The race is on to convince voters to give more money to Indianapolis Public Schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Lexus Balanzar, a campaign worker for Stand for Children, is making the case for voters to increase funding for Indianapolis Public Schools.

With less than two months until Election Day, the effort to pass two referendums to increase funding for Indianapolis Public Schools is gaining momentum. Almost every day, campaign workers are fanning out across Indianapolis to seek support from voters. And Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is stopping by community meetings across the district to make his case that the district needs taxpayers’ help.

This multi-pronged approach illustrates how high the stakes are for the district, which aims to raise $272 million to prevent an even more dire financial situation.

The district first announced plans to ask voters for nearly $1 billion from taxpayers 10 months ago. Since then, the request was cut down, then the vote was delayed to rally more support. The district ultimately came to a final reduced request, which appears to be more palatable to community leaders and has won the support of the Indy Chamber. There is no organized opposition to the referendums, and a previous critic, the MIBOR Realtor Association, now supports them.

But the district ultimately needs the support of voters in addition to power brokers. The key to a successful referendum campaign is reaching out to both hyper-engaged voters and those who are less tuned in to local issues, said Andrew Downs, an associate professor of political science at Purdue University Fort Wayne.

When Ferebee presented last Tuesday to the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, for example, he was reaching members of the community who will likely tell friends and neighbors about the referendums, said Downs.

“They’re voters who will reach out to other people,” he said. “They are voters who typically have a network that will be activated in this case in support of the referendums.”

During the campaign for the planned May referendums, district leaders were juggling other initiatives that drew attention from the tax measures. But Ferebee is now front and center in the effort to win over voters. In a crowded banquet hall last week, Ferebee made the case for increasing funding to a group of Rotarians who appeared largely sympathetic. His low-key jokes drew friendly laughter. But the core of his argument was that the district needs more money to pay for safety improvements at schools and increase teacher pay.

When teacher pay is low, Ferebee said, the district struggles to retain and recruit teachers. It’s forced to rely on substitutes, and students suffer. “We know that our educators are so impactful in our lives,” he said. “We’ve got to do better with compensating them accordingly.”

The hard-won endorsement of the chamber has also gotten some voters’ attention. Tom Schneider, who works for Alpha Tau Omega National Fraternity, did not closely follow the referendums in the early months of the campaign. But as a chamber member, Schneider has learned more about it recently, and he has become an advocate.

“I’m really glad the chamber and the school district got together, they talked about it, and they figured out something that would work,” said Schneider, who rents downtown.

However, after months of political jockeying over the price tag, both behind closed doors and in the media, some voters have concerns over how much the request has changed and whether the district has shown that it needs the money.

Jefferson Shreve, a Republican on the Indianapolis City-County Council, said that even the reduced request is a significant amount of money.

Shreve was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council just last week, and he said he will continue to learn more about the referendums. But Indianapolis Public Schools leaders need to show how they arrived at the final request and how they will use the money.

“If you’re a citizen, and you’re just trying to keep up with this from the sidelines, the number is jumping around by hundreds of millions of bucks,” said Shreve in a phone interview last week. “That just doesn’t instill a whole lot of confidence.”

Reaching people who aren’t involved in groups like Rotary, such as low-income voters who work hourly wage jobs or busy parents of young children, takes other campaign tactics, said Downs, the political scientist.

The Indianapolis effort will include radio ads and direct mail, organizers say. The campaign is also relying on door-to-door canvassing, which the group Stand for Children Indiana has already begun. On a Friday afternoon in early September, three canvassers from the group traversed a neighborhood near Crown Hill Cemetery, before their day was cut short by torrential rain.

When a campaign worker knocked on Michael Bateman’s door, his Maltese Shih Tzu burst into high pitched barks. Bateman, for his part, was friendly if skeptical as he stood on the porch in the misty rain.

Lexus Balanzar got straight to the point: Would Bateman be willing to increase his own property taxes to raise money for school security and higher pay for teachers? The tax hike would cost just $3 more per month for homes at the district’s median value, she said.

The taxes on his home were already unaffordable, Bateman, an Indianapolis public school parent and alumnus, said with a dry laugh. “But if it’s for the teachers raises — if we can guarantee that they are for the raises, yeah.”

It’s an argument that could have broad appeal. A recent poll from Ipsos/USA Today found that 59 percent of Americans do not believe teachers are paid fairly, and even more say teachers spend too much of their own money on supplies.

Most of the year, Stand works directly with parents by training them to advocate for their children. But when election season comes around, the group takes on another, controversial role. The local branch of a national organization, Stand has been influential in helping elect school board members who favor partnerships with charter school.

Vote Yes for IPS, a political action committee supporting the referendums, is leaning on Stand for canvassing because the group has roots in the community, said Robert Vane, the lead consultant for the PAC. “Quite frankly, it would be political malpractice not to partner with them when appropriate,” he said.

When it comes to the referendums, Stand’s support could prove pivotal to success. In addition to canvassing, Stand donated $100,000 to Vote Yes for IPS. Stand officials declined to say how much the group is spending on canvassing, but the group said that its spending would be included on the Vote Yes for IPS financial disclosures.

The group has about 20 full-time, paid canvassers across Indianapolis, said Joel Williams, the Stand field director. The canvassers will continue door knocking and performing voter outreach until Election Day.

“We work as much as we humanly can,” Williams added.

state policy

What seven school board members in West Tennessee want in their next governor

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
School boards from across West Tennessee gathered at the new Collierville High School on Monday evening.

Seven weeks before Tennesseans go to the polls to elect the state’s next governor, school board members say funding and getting online testing right are among their top concerns.

School boards across West Tennessee gathered in Collierville on Monday evening with the Tennessee School Boards Association to discuss priorities for the upcoming legislative session. The region, anchored by Memphis, has been a hotbed of state programs in schools to improve test scores at low-performing schools, such as the state-run Achievement School District, in the last two gubernatorial administrations. Online state testing has run into numerous problems since it was introduced in 2016, when a system crash canceled testing for younger students.

Chalkbeat asked some of the school board members in attendance to share what they think the next governor’s education priorities should be. Their answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Mark Hansen, Collierville

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Mark Hansen, a school board member for Collierville Schools.

Obviously we remain concerned about testing and the ability of the infrastructure to not crash when high schools throughout the state log on at the same time. We are very hopeful they’ll get that worked out so that testing is done efficiently. It should be done online because in 2018 and 2019 you shouldn’t have to do things on paper and pencil… You need to test to have a snapshot of where your children are. But there’s a happy medium between not testing enough and testing too much. And I think we need to continue to explore where that happy medium is.

I also hope that they continue to push — and the state legislature — to put more money in the BEP, Basic Education Program, (state funding formula for schools) so that teacher salaries can continue to rise to what they need to be.

I would also emphasize that vocational technical education — that seems to be getting some attention now. Of course we would like every kid to go to college but we think there is a place for those to get a certificate and go out into the workplace and make really good money to start off with. So, I would hope that they would be open to some new programs.

Sally Spencer, Fayette County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sally Spencer, a school board member in Fayette County

I’d like to see continued support for schools that we have had from our current governor. He has been very pro-school, pro-education, for everybody. The Drive to 55 (for 55 percent of Tennesseans to complete college or a job certificate by 2025) is aimed at parents of children who are now realizing how deficient they are in education. They need to go to school. We have the Tennessee Promise program so they can go out and feel out a college before they commit to a college. Kids are not all the same so we have a lot of children who are really into vocational education who don’t want that liberal arts education.

This governor has done a great deal to work with teachers to strive for excellence. We used to have a program where you got tenure if you taught three years. Period. And you didn’t have a lot of complaints; it was almost considered to be automatic. Now you earn that tenure. I would want to keep that.


READ: Here’s how Lee, Dean compare on education in the race to be Tennessee’s next governor


Michelle Robinson McKissack, Shelby County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Michelle Robinson McKissack, a school board member for Shelby County Schools.

There’s always all this talk about we need to have students coming out who are ready for the workforce. We need to make sure at the state level they’re providing the funding and that they’re working with businesses to put their money behind their mouth. Instead of just complaining about what’s lacking as students come out of school, being proactive and making things happen.

The need is so dire in Shelby County that the state needs to do adopt a student-based funding model as opposed to being per pupil just like we at Shelby County. We see there’s a greater need perhaps in one area at one school that maybe another school may not have. There’s such a great poverty level here, you have to do more. You can’t just expect for these students who are struggling with so many other challenges, and districts who don’t have the same challenges, give them the same kind of money and then expect that they’re going to get ahead. It’s never going to happen. You have to invest more where the need is greater.

Shirley Jackson, Bartlett

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shirley Jackson, a school board member for Bartlett City Schools

I would like the state to fulfill the funding needs we have. I’m sure everybody is big on that. We need more money for teacher salaries because we want to keep them and retain them in the field.

Testing is an issue. We need better modes of testing, more accurate representation of what the students actually know and do. Not just one day’s worth, but an overall score for that child. I think mainly the fiasco we’ve had with testing has been my [constituent’s] main concern at this point.

Richard Joyner, Tipton County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Richard Joyner, school board member in Tipton County

I hope the new governor follows in line with the one going out. Pushing more for our schools, I’d like to see more funding to do more things. Nicer schools; we need a lot of renovations on our schools in Tipton County. It’s just hard to get a hold of the funding. We have to go into our reserve money to do all the things we want to do.

I’d also like to see the testing system change. With the last administration, the testing didn’t work. I would like to see them do something to make testing work a whole lot easier. Some of the teachers are complaining about it’s hard to do.


READ: Haslam worries TNReady testing troubles could unravel Tennessee education policy


Wendell Wainwright, Fayette County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Wendell Wainwright, a school board member in Fayette County

I would like to see the state bring library resources into the school system. I’m on the library board in my county and the school board. I can see a need how those two can come together because everyone thinks that libraries are not needed anymore. But there’s a lot more going on in a library than just borrowing books.

We have a problem with broadband. Kids cannot use computers in a lot of areas because there’s no internet connection. It can enhance learning bringing the library and the school setting together since we don’t have broadband like we need or want it to be. I’d like to see state funding to help that.

Belinda Rozell, Tipton County

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Belinda Rozell, center, a school board member in Tipton County

One thing I hope the next governor will do is be mindful that all children are different; they learn different. And that all the learning should be appropriate for each child. I’m very much for that. I don’t like that everybody has to teach this at the same time, same words used, because every child is different. So, I think learning should be centered around the child, not around the books, not around the curriculum, and not to just improve test scores. I think if you do well-rounded instruction and make a child focus, all the rest will fall into place.

Now, I think everything has been focused on test scores. So, I think everything would be different because they have better mindset for the children and they’ll be more relaxed. If we’re taking care of all the mental health issues, physical, educational, even help with the home issues, I think we’ll have a well-rounded school, a well-rounded community, and then a well-rounded society.